In her latest work, Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer & Poetry in Iran, Niloofar Haeri, professor of anthropology and chair of the Krieger School’s Program in Islamic Studies, provides a rich examination of contemporary religious beliefs and prayer practices among a group of educated, middle-class Muslim women in Iran.
Say What Your Longing Heart Desires outlines lived ritual experiences, where readers witness women’s explorations of the kind of Muslims they strive to be.
“I think there’s a broad misunderstanding about what it is that attracts people to religion,” says Haeri. “Most people assume that the answer is to be found within the various doctrines of any given religion. In my book I try to show how much more complex the answer is.”
The idea for the book began, as so many do, with curiosity. After a relative returned from her evening prayers and said that they “had gone well,” Haeri began to wonder, “Could ritual prayers go well or badly? How does one assess how a prayer turns out? Isn’t a ritual just a ritual?”
Haeri interviewed women who were born in the 1940s and who influenced Iranian society by being the first generation to finish college and go on to become professionals and achieve economic independence. They participate fully in the debates about Islam. “The women that I interviewed became more reflective about religion, they wanted to learn for themselves and discover for themselves as part of a larger conversation,” Haeri says.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of an Islamic Republic brought the deepest theological questions into the public sphere. The question of what it means to be Muslim was now open for public debate.
“After the revolution, because the government was closing down many places of entertainment and many places where people could get together, a lot came inside,” says Haeri. “The space of the home actually became quasi-public.”
I urge that we pose the question: ‘What does it mean to be religious?’ rather than assume that we know what that means.”—Niloofar Haeri
Haeri says that Iranian women are often not at the table where theological debate takes place. For the book, she followed a group of educated, middle-class women who have carved out their own spaces—often in private homes—to pray, debate, read, and learn.
Say What Your Longing Heart Desires explores the influence of classical, mystic Persian poetry on the practice of three distinct forms of prayer, each the focus of its own chapter: ritual prayer or namaz that Muslims are required to recite five times a day; spontaneous prayer or do’a that is often said in Persian; and lastly, the practice of reading prayers composed and passed down by Shi’i imams or reading do’a.
In Iran, children are taught at a young age how to memorize and recite the works of such classical poets as Rumi, Hafez Shirazi, Saadi Shirazi, and Nizami. “In childhood, you teach your children to recite poetry, but you also teach your children to recite prayers,” Haeri explains. But the links between poetry and Islam do not end there. “In the cultural history of Iran all these beloved poets commented extensively on what it is to be a true Muslim. This world of poetry and the world of religion are porous, there has always been this dialogue and this exchange.”
Haeri also addresses ritual prayer and how what may seem like rote recitation is often anything but. She argues that ritual prayer, such as the namaz, can actually achieve what is called “presence of heart,” where one feels a connection to the divine. That is how such a prayer goes well. But if one’s mind is distracted or it is difficult to concentrate, then one might say that the prayer did not go well.
“A repetition does not make something predictable,” she says. “Like practicing a piece of music, even if the notes and routine remain unchanged, each experience is different.”
In her chapter on do’a, or spontaneous prayer, she notes that it is not obligatory under Islamic law, is done in Persian, and can be practiced anywhere at any time.
“Some women say that because they can speak Persian to God they feel closer to God,” she says (the ritual prayer is in Qur’anic Arabic). Haeri found it surprising that the examples the women gave of times when their spontaneous prayer became memorable were those when their life conditions had become difficult and they became angry with God. “So prayer can become an occasion where you ask God to account for himself.”
Haeri says that the details of a religious ritual, whether obligatory or not, whether in one’s mother tongue or not, influence one’s closeness to God.
The title of Haeri’s book comes from a line in a well-known poem by Rumi called “Moses and the Shepherd,” which she says has become a kind of catchphrase people say.
In that story, God tells Moses to convey this message: “Don’t fret about formalities and rules, do what your heart desires.” “The expression captures my ethnography. The women I interviewed repeatedly quoted that line to express their belief that the true seat of religiosity is in the invisible heart,” Haeri says.